I currently dwell in what I suppose is the second year of my Ph.D. in English Literature, at least financially. Although I started in January 2012, my fees for the second year were (and this was not clear when I registered) expected in September 2012. So my first ‘tip’ is: make sure you are clear about when payments are due, even if you start mid-year! I am a full-time student, and I live in rented accommodation with my partner, who relocated with me for the Ph.D. The current Ph.D. cohort in my department is fairly equally divided between those who live in shared housing (this tends to be the younger ones), and some who live with another housemate or a partner.
Because I am self-funding, next to my research I work three days a week during term time as a Student Finance Adviser at a different university, to and from which my total travel time (trains and walking) is about an hour and a half and takes up about a quarter of my pay. The advantage of the job is that overall it is well-paid, part-time, and term-time only, thus giving me some leeway for my research. Yet, it is still a huge drain on my time (and energy). Although my partner works, Bristol is quite an expensive city, and money for conferences and books is something I want and need to earn myself as it just would not be possible to include these expenses in our living costs. I am extremely lucky that my family has banded together for the tuition fees, otherwise I would have considered a bank loan, or I would have reverted to part-time study, or left it a year and perhaps tried another university for scholarships and funding.
The following, I want to make clear, is mostly comprised of my own opinion and based on my specific experience, but I also know that others have a similar outlook.
Starting mid-year, I was left off departmental emailing lists for months, despite being a registered student. I was receiving basic university emails until I navigated the complex institutional pages and decided to join a postgraduate reading group. I realised I had missed out on a lot; research seminars, calls for papers, information about funding, and much more. Similarly, unlike the September starters, we were not invited to any sort of welcome event until May when a student suggested it to the Head of Department.
I felt, particularly when I started, as if being self-funded could be a disadvantage for future job prospects (I do not have evidence to support this, so please check out the statistics and other people’s experiences), and consequently threw myself into numerous projects: I devised and ran a two-day international conference for academics at any level which has led to editing a potential collection of conference proceedings with a reputable publisher. I am co-founder and Co-chief Editor of a peer-reviewed postgraduate journal for the arts and humanities. I have devised and taught a first-year undergraduate class. I set up an in-house reading group to which postgraduates and external speakers presented. I have presented at three conferences, two symposia/ research seminars, and I am still responding to CFPs for journals and essay collections to try and have something published. It is more than conceivable that I would have been this ridiculously involved had I been awarded a full scholarship, but I still feel I should show future employers that although my project was not deemed either interesting/ in vogue/ serious/ fresh enough (for whatever reason), I have much to offer. I know two fully-funded PhD students who do no other extra projects; they solely concentrate on their research, and maybe having been awarded a scholarship will see them through easily to a career, maybe not. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of my experience so far is that when I reapplied for funding (which could be done within 18 months of starting) I listed all the above and showed the progression of my research and still was not awarded anything.
A Ph.D. can be a very lonely time. It is not like undergraduate study or even a Masters, particularly if your course does not involve any compulsory attendance (our research seminars were voluntary for instance). You have to find the time and motivation to join or set up reading groups, or other extra-curricular activities. Living in shared housing may have the advantage of a small community (providing you get on), but for those who have lived and worked outside of academia, if only for a short while, it’s hard to revert to “student” living, especially if you are co-habiting and both enjoy your own space. My experience is that although our department has some money to help towards conferences (which I believe should be only for self-funded students), and budgets for setting up reading groups, you are spending (in the Arts and Humanities) £3,000 – £4,000 a year to see your supervisor about 5 times during that period – perhaps more if you do not also have to work – while having to fight for inter-library loan vouchers and get, if you are lucky, a weekend away in the UK for your holiday.
Having said all that, I do not believe that I am treated any differently than the fully-funded students in my department, only that I have had to work a lot harder to survive, remain on the course and feel I have an advantage in the job market. I also have thoroughly enjoyed being part of all the projects on which I feel those who are funded but did not get involved have missed out. The knock-backs and subsequent determination to boost my prospects has provided me with so many great new connections and publishing opportunities, and it has stopped the misery I felt in the first few months from not knowing anyone. I cannot deny, however, that now my misery is concerned with money, and having to work three days a week, which I would happily discard to focus on my research if I could.
My advice? If you are self-funding, you need to get involved, but you also need to be prepared for the hardships, both mentally and financially, that you will face. Keep trying for funding where you can, but research the costs of living and materials and conferences as if you will have no help. Most importantly: chin up and onwards!